Can more arts and creativity in primary schools improve children’s writing? Our research to address this question began at a time when primary schools were facing continuous pressure to raise writing standards and, simultaneously, struggling to maintain a broad and creative curriculum.

Integrating arts with writing…

Our strategy to integrate arts with writing coincided with publication of a new National Curriculum (DfE, 2014). Designed to raise standards in core subjects, the programme of study for English is detailed and prescriptive, with more than 60 pages of precise specifications for Key Stages 1 and 2. In contrast, there is little emphasis upon art, design or music, with guidance for these subjects slim at just two pages each. This goes against many educators’ better judgement, as it risks forcing a narrowing of the curriculum, including restricting approaches to the teaching of writing, in order to meet required levels of performance on standardised tests (Beard, 2019).

This is a rather different policy landscape from two decades ago when, inspired by the ‘All our futures’ report (NACCCE, 1999), there was strong interest in the importance of arts and creativity in all types of education. The government-funded Creative Partnerships programme saw artists partnering with schools, with many positive outcomes, including benefits for children’s language and literacy learning (Safford and Barrs, 2005).

The importance of learning through the arts and valuing a range of modes of representation, including physical and emotional expression, remains vital. Opportunities to explore ideas through art, drama, music and movement foster children’s imagination and can help develop their thoughts into extended writing (CLPE, 2018).

In the absence of artists in schools, due to diminishing budgets, it is a challenge to provide worthwhile arts experiences. Teachers, who may not have received any in-depth arts training, need to acquire knowledge and skills in arts subjects. To enable teachers to elicit children’s ideas effectively, we consider that specific artist-led professional development is needed.

The project

In response to this, two successful arts and creative writing pilot projects (one with early career teachers and another focused upon promotion of student voice) were initiated by Royal Opera House Bridge (ROHB) and Essex schools in collaboration with Anglia Ruskin University. Our current three-year ‘Creative Writing through the Arts’ (2016–2019) project continues these partnerships and is funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation ‘More and Better’ scheme, with investment from ROHB and 45 primary schools in South Essex (to support the costs of this valuable professional learning opportunity for teachers). The project aim is to promote children’s creative writing skills through integration of writing with art, dance, drama, film and music activities in primary school classrooms (from Foundation Stage to Year 6).

Teachers undertake professional development in each of the five arts subjects, through ‘Inspiration Day’ workshops with creative practitioners. These are immersive days, one held near the beginning of each school term, where teachers participate in activities and reflect upon ways to utilise new arts techniques in their lesson planning. Teachers then implement ideas in their classrooms, supported by mentoring visits from the creative practitioners.

For example, on an Inspiration Day for music, teachers listened to ‘Ritual Fire Dance’ by Manuel de Falla, identifying and describing elements of the music in lay-person’s terms (e.g. loud, quiet, fast, slow, smooth, quivery, stabbing). On second listening, they jotted down a story that the music could be portraying and then created compositions, using percussion instruments, based on the sounds and story of the piece, and performed these to one another. Taking this inspiration back into school, one Year 4 class were reading the book FArTHER by Grahame Baker-Smith, about a father who goes off to war. To evoke the emotions in the story, students listened to Puccini’s ‘Sono Andati?’ (from La Boheme) and created a large ‘emotions cloud’, before writing heartfelt diary entries from the perspective of the son.

This model is repeated for all art forms, with different ‘Inspiration Day’ activities and varied approaches to follow-up mentoring by the artists, including half-day school visits for discussions, observations, team teaching and co-planning of lessons, and small group follow-up where teachers share what is working well in their teaching through the art form and where they are facing challenges, and are supported by the artist and their peers to envisage new possibilities (see Luff et al., 2018; Luff et al., forthcoming).

The research and evaluation

An integral element of the project is collaborative action research between academics and the 45 project teachers, taking into account student voice. In each of the three years of the project, 15 teachers carry out action research to explore the effectiveness of the approach for students in their class, assess potential to incorporate arts across the curriculum, and reflect upon the outcomes. Their findings are shared verbally (at termly action research meetings), through narrative reports and on a final summary poster for the Celebration Event at the end of each year, where posters are shared along with exciting displays of supporting evidence.

At the action research meetings, the teacher-researchers share and analyse findings from across their classrooms, identifying common themes and recognising benefits of working through the arts. These findings from the teacher action research are cross-validated through independent assessment of writing samples collected from children in each of the participating classes. Teachers also complete questionnaires at the beginning and end of the school year, researchers visit schools to attend to student voice, and interviews are carried out with headteachers (for details see Davis et al., 2017; Luff et al., 2018; Luff et al., forthcoming).

Key findings

The findings reported here summarise benefits for students, teachers and schools found from the first two years of the Creative Writing through the Arts project (Davis et al., 2017; Luff et al., 2018), with illustrative examples. The project is currently concluding, and findings from the third year of the project and across the three years of the project will be reported this year (Luff et al., forthcoming).

Students’ writing

Students gain ideas and meaningful reasons for writing, write more and produce work of higher quality. With arts input that fires their imagination, children display originality in their work and incorporate an expanded range of all tiers of vocabulary. Increased use of literary devices is shown in their arts-inspired writing: detail and description through expanded noun phrases, similes and metaphors; emphasis (alliteration, onomatopoeia); development of character and setting; use of rhetorical devices; foreshadowing; symbolism; and use of viewpoint and voice. Some of these characteristics are well illustrated in this extract of writing from a Year 4 student, inspired by dance activities linked to Gulliver’s Travels:

Why I thougt? Why must I sufer? What crime have I commited? Who have I sinned against?… I wonder, are these walls solid. For whenever I leaned against a wall I felt my mind, body and soul fall into an endless abis of misery, doubt, fear and all things negative. Shrouded by darkness, I lost everything my life force, my strength, my life…

Students’ learning

The children’s enthusiasm for the arts activities results in high motivation to write, including for boys. They engage with arts and writing processes, showing involvement and sustained attention. As expressed by one teacher:

The children have been so engaged with all the activities and are so much more eager to want to write. Children who previously shied away from more creative activities now love it when we incorporate arts activities into lessons… The class are so eager to share their work with their peers and their confidence as writers has blossomed… Even previously reluctant writers are those who are coming up to me, asking if they can share their work with the class. Children have also mentioned that they are regularly writing stories and poems at home. There has definitely been a shift in terms of enthusiasm to write and what is being produced has been to a better standard than before.

Teachers

Teachers are inspired by their participation in the project and often surprised and excited by outcomes for all students. They report gains in enthusiasm and confidence in arts-based teaching, and claim that their teaching of writing has been (re)invigorated.

Teachers used student voice tasks and techniques to encourage critical reflection, self-assessment and extension of learning. There is often a sense of mutual learning between children and teacher. For example, from a Year 2 teacher:

I’ve become aware since doing the project that I can be too structured in some of my teaching, so this session I left the children to it and watched their ideas pan out. I now feel more confident to try out some of my own ideas and be more inventive.

Teachers have also appreciated the professional learning opportunity and community, and establishing a network of other teachers to discuss issues with, as well as the development of skills, knowledge and techniques for teaching using creative art forms.

Schools

The schools in the project value the increase in creative and cultural learning. There is immediate sharing of tools, techniques and strategies, and some specific activities have been disseminated through and across schools. There is growing wider implementation of the creative ideas, for example within teaching school alliances and academy chains. One headteacher expressed a desire for the approach to become embedded:

For us, it’s been a lovely project to be part of and I think… in years to come, we will see the benefits of it, when it becomes a natural part of our daily practice… My hope is that, like most things, it becomes part of the school’s ethos and actually you don’t even think about it, it’s just a natural thing to do.

Implications for practice

Overall, the project explores and celebrates the value of educators working in partnership with the cultural sector to develop curriculum and pedagogy for successful writing through the arts. The project offers insights for curriculum design in primary schools as the wheel turns towards more broad and balanced approaches. The project is timely in the light of a realisation, backed by Ofsted (2019), that the curriculum has narrowed too much and that teaching an integrated creative curriculum does not preclude excellence in writing. We advocate a cross-curricular approach that values rich learning for the whole child, whatever their talents and interests. For this to happen, it is essential that teachers and schools feel confident in their creative knowledge and skills, and so we recommend the involvement of artists and creative practitioners in future initial teacher training and worthwhile, cost-effective continued professional development.

References

Beard R (2019) Reading and writing in primary schools: Processes, practices and priorities. ASPE Bulletin, Issue 3. Available at: www.aspe-uk.eu/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/ASPE_Bulletin_Issue3_March2019.pdf (accessed 22 July 2019).

Centre for Primary Literacy Education (CLPE) (2018) Writing in primary schools: What we know works. Available at: https://clpe.org.uk/library-and-resources/what-we-know-works-booklets/writing-primary-schools-what-we-know-works (accessed 2 June 2019).

Davis G, Luff P, Kanyal M et al. (2017) Creative Writing through the Arts 2016–2019. End of year report, Autumn 2017. Available at: http://arro.anglia.ac.uk/702478/ (accessed 2 June 2019).

Department for Education (DfE) (2014) National Curriculum in England: Framework for key stages 1 to 4. Available at: www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-framework-for-key-stages-1-to-4 (accessed 2 June 2019).

Luff P, Acton F, Feist A et al. (2018) Creative Writing through the Arts 2016–2019. End of year report, Autumn 2018. Available at: https://arro.anglia.ac.uk/703659/ (accessed 2 June 2019).

Luff P, Kanyal M, Quayle D et al. (forthcoming) Creative Writing through the Arts 2016–2019. Final research report.

National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education (NACCCE) (1999) All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education. London: DfEE. Available at: http://sirkenrobinson.com/pdf/allourfutures.pdf (accessed 2 June 2019).

Ofsted (2019) The education inspection framework. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/801429/Education_inspection_framework.pdf (accessed 2 June 2019).

Safford K and Barrs M (2005) Creativity and literacy: Many routes to meaning. Available at: https://clpe.org.uk/library-and-resources/research/research (accessed 2 June 2019).